USGS Oregon Water Science Center (ORWSC) research during a pandemic

masked researcher waving from a boat

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted how research has been conducted. Many field scientists have adapted their projects and studies to uphold their mission while following new restrictions and protocols that were created in light of COVID-19. Safety measures such as physical distancing, masking, travel restrictions and work from home models have made field research more challenging and forced scientists to think outside the box. 

However, the USGS Oregon Water Science Center (ORWSC) has been able to continue nearly all studies and field work and in some cases increased their productivity by implementing effective processes that reduce exposure while maximizing scientific work. Adaptations to field work continue to support the USGS mission regardless of additional restrictions, protocols, and procedures being implemented to protect the safety of workers and the public. The continuation of mission essential work has shown the efforts of field personnel as they have risen to the occasion. The USGS has achieved their goal to date of 0 employee transmission.

A critical part of this transition is Lori Fischer, who started working with the USGS as a summer volunteer where she fell in love with the hands-on aspect of water science. This led her into a career as a full-time USGS hydrologic field technician, along with becoming the ORWSC’s Collateral Duty Safety Officer. “From my personal experience I became passionate about educating and training others about the dangers that come with field jobs,” she explained. As a result of the pandemic and the fall wildfires, Fischer’s duties as the Center’s Safety Officer have increased dramatically this year.

In her work as a hydrologic field technician, Fischer works with stream gages in the McKenzie River Basin. She explained that field work requiring more than one technician has faced challenges such physical distancing, traveling measures, increased paperwork before going into the field and extra safety measures during site visits. “Researchers must first receive approval for their field visit from their direct supervisor, the director, and the regional supervisor prior to traveling. Then each field scientist travels separately to the site, stays 6ft apart while wearing a cloth mask or wears an N95 mask if the work requires them to be in close proximity,” she shared. Maintaining field work, such as stream gage maintenance, is important to the USGS, their partners, and other researchers. The USGS reports the data in real time, which in turn is used in many research studies, dam operations, flood control, water supply and quality monitoring and by fisherman across the Pacific Northwest.  

One of the unexpected positives during the pandemic has been the increase in completed reports and projects. Lori explained that “When you’re at home, there are fewer distractions. When you’re in the office you’re collaborating with co-workers, constantly shifting your focus toward the different projects you are working on all while planning for field work. There is more flexibility in telework, which might be allowing people to complete some of their backlogged reporting and projects.”

Due to overall increased productivity, some aspects of the work from home model may continue post-pandemic. “Management has seen the efficiencies that resulted from a telework scenario. The Center has adapted amazingly well to these unprecedented circumstances and accomplished so much,'' Fischer noted.  

It is uncertain what field and office work will look like once the COVID-19 vaccine is widely administered, but the USGS has designed an excellent model that keeps staff safe and facilitates the continuation of critical scientific research and data collection.